All Blacks: Cheats or masters of gamesmanship?

"Street-smart".

That's how former Springbok coach Nick Mallett described an incident involving All Blacks and Crusaders lock Sam Whitelock in last Saturday's Super Rugby semi-final in Christchurch.

The incident in question occurred when the Crusaders skipper knocked the ball out of Hurricanes scrumhalf TJ Perenara's hands at a ruck.

The 'Canes, trailing 30-26 at the time, were hot on attack for the winning score when Australian referee Nic Berry deemed that Perenara had knocked the ball on.

Game over!

Berry did not spot Whitelock's indiscretion and upon viewing further replays it was clear that a penalty and yellow card should have been the order of the day.

Whether you like the tactics or not, you can't argue that it was clever.

Whitelock knew the referee in all likelihood would not spot it. As per the regulations, the television match official could also not step in as it wasn't foul play.

Sneaky! And I wouldn't be surprised if Whitelock got a pat on the back from coach Scott Robertson and his team-mates after the match.

This begs the question: Should this kind of subtle cheating be considered part and parcel of the game?

After all, the Kiwis have been doing it for years.

Rugby historians will never forget Andy Haden's infamous lineout dive against Wales at Cardiff Arms Park in 1978. It was done to con referee Roger Quittenton into awarding New Zealand a penalty, and while the English official said he actually penalised Wales' Geoff Wheel for a push on Frank Oliver, Haden later admitted it was pre-planned for him to dive.

The All Blacks kicked the penalty to sneak a 13-12 win.

There was also an incident in the famous 1995 World Cup final between South Africa and New Zealand at Ellis Park where All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick fell backwards with his hands covering his face, pretending he was punched.

It was in extra time and the Boks had just been awarded a kickable penalty, before Fitzpatrick tried his luck in swaying English referee Ed Morrison into reversing the penalty. Luckily for the Boks, Morrison did not fall for Fitzpatrick's tricks.

Last year, popular New Zealand scribe Mark Reason got Kiwis hot under the collar when he wrote in a column for the Stuff.co.nz website:

"That's what the All Blacks do. They vicariously bully and cheat in the name of patriotism. But they are now in jeopardy. As we found out in the Lions series - and it cost the All Blacks the series - what they get away with in Super Rugby doesn't fly with many northern hemisphere refs."

Former Springbok centre and assistant coach Brendan Venter also wrote a few years ago that the All Backs "cheated subtly" and Whitelock's actions last Saturday will certainly stir that debate once more.

The Stuff website described the Whitelock incident as "an act of gamesmanship". However, I'm not sure that description is entirely accurate.

The Cambridge Dictionary describes gamesmanship as "the activity of trying to win a game by doing things that are not really breaking the rules but are intended to destroy the confidence of the other player".

Whitelock clearly broke the rules, he was just not caught.

Street-smart!

Not only are the All Blacks the world best rugby team, but they are also past masters at gaining an edge over opponents by using various ploys and tactics.

And, in this all-important Rugby World Cup year, it may help if their opponents (yes, the Springboks should take heed) are extra vigilant.

Herman Mostert is a long-time Sport24 employee...

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